My new role involves contributing to academic development including our PG Cert in Teaching and Learning. Given my focus it made sense for me to take up the module on “Technology Enhanced Learning”. It’s been a long time since I have been “new” to teaching in terms of putting a module together. Of course there have been ongoing iterations of chemistry modules over the last two decades (eeek!) where I have had to teach a variety of sub-topics in my discipline. But I brought to that the norms that build up over time to form an implicit understanding of what, say, a second year molecular spectroscopy course should be. While I have guest-lectured on academic practice programmes and been a super-keen participant, this was my first time at the steering wheel.
All this is to say that I think I forgot (or my brain erased it purposefully) how insanely busy those early years of being “new” in teaching are. When pulling together material to include this module the challenges come quick and fast. How much? For what purpose? Is it interesting? How will I teach it? Of course in the modern world the challenge is that there is so much to say, and distilling out enough to give a good grounding while making a common thread is… time-consuming. I had brief flashbacks to frantically pulling together my “Introductory Chemistry” module back in 2004 and just like then, didn’t have the experience to look at a textbook and with finger in the air, gauge how the “content” would spread out over my teaching time. We build up so many norms and benchmarks over the years that we forget (or I forgot) what a huge learning curve there is in those early stages. So I think I understood at least some of the time pressures our participants were under as many of them are new to teaching.
What’s the theory?
My own teaching philosophy is heavily influenced by the need for our actions to have some grounding in theory. I feel that, ethically and morally, it is important that we can point to – something – when we ask students to do things or chose particular teaching approaches. Mostly because there are crazy people with crazy ideas out there. As a learner therefore I have always enjoyed when teaching actions are connected with some bigger picture we know from educational psychology. My own Holy Trinity of cognitive load, generative learning, and self-efficacy are my touchpoints, and I wanted to pass on this knowledge (as a closet behaviourist) to participants.
In practice this has limitations. Sessions are two hours and I wanted participants to chat and discuss – a lot. I learned pretty quickly that I was cramming in far too much and in not sufficient depth, so very quickly dialled back these intentions to think instead of the take home message. I wanted to share about learning design for example, but only to get participants to think about the weekly life of their students and their asynchronous activity. So instead, I should just focus on talking about the asynchronous activity. Similarly, I learned that UDL is not something to be summarised in a session. As a former colleague would remark: “isn’t that effing obvious, Seery?” But in a very thick Scottish accent, and with ‘effing’ being a different word.
This connects to a bugbear of mine where everyone is a “social constructivist”, because you know: peer learning innit? Students in groups and let’s wave our hands around a lot. But I forgot that my perspective now is after over 15 years of thinking about these things. I mean I spent the best part of 2010 just wondering about what I understood about constructivism. So I suppose I see the appeal in a way of keeping a headline epistemology simple: we want students to work in active settings that involve dialogue and knowledge construction. OK, so I can be a social constructivist. (And get generation in by stealth.)
Another learning (oh, so many) was about structuring in-session work. As someone who breaks out in hives when I see a flipchart, I think I brought a lot of baggage to this. Yes I wanted participants to discuss things, but you know – just discuss?
I learned from the polite but horrified reaction of a colleague when I suggested I was just going to “let them discuss” and not use some kind of worksheet to guide discussion. (Refer to Scottish reaction, above.) By week 4, there were worksheet grids aplenty and I even rolled out the use of our lovely new whiteboards in our teaching room. Turns out my biases were not generally shared – giving more focus and structure led to more useful discussions. The irony is that I have been preaching this approach in online breakout rooms for last three years; the same principles apply to in-person.
Overall I think the participants learned something about technology in their teaching. The core mantra of the module of purpose and value resonated throughout, and in a variety of settings. I think participants appreciated the discussions grounded in reality of practice. I found a lot of the academic practice literature I used to prepare for the module was a little disconnected from reality, and longed for more pragmatism and tangibility along the lines of the work of Gilly Salmon. As a way of getting around the overloading, I instead shared themed bibliographies, so that if there were particular things that resonated, people could follow up. That seemed to be popular.
I also really loved talking about teaching with people. It was lovely to listen to colleagues share their ideas and realise that those good intentions and ideas could be grounded in decent pedagogic practice. I was very lucky in the enthusiasm of the group and the extent to which they really cared about thinking on their teaching practice. It was very rewarding to me.
As a control freak, I suppose it was also hard not to take over everything and just do it my way. I quickly saw the value in bringing in my colleagues; participants appreciated learning about “how to” in as much as “why to”, and discussions with other educators with substantial expertise and variety of perspectives. The group have had exposure to a team of learning developers and no fewer than three National Teaching Fellows, which isn’t a bad stat. But this is definitely a dimension to grow more.
Alongside the amendments and ummm – learnings, I think there is a bigger issue for me to reflect on. This is a very busy group of people, and while sessions are recorded and slides are available etc etc, I think there is a lot to think about in terms of the asynchronous offer and perhaps even disentangling that from the “in-class” version. I mean: can you imagine listening back to me for two hours on lecture recording? There are better things to do in life. For this module in particular, I think there is an opportunity to promote a more rounded asynchronous offer, and formalise and extend the bibliography idea so that it would be a more structured way for participants to follow up on particular themes of interest. A variety of content presented in multiple modes – wait, isn’t that UDL?